Friday, 28 December 2012

When the wind's blowing the wrong way

This Thursday was a green ribbon day for Hawaii's budding wind energy sector. It was announced that the 21 MW Auwahi Wind project, installed on the Hawaiian island of Maui, was up and running, and busily harvesting the breeze. Eight turbines are now churning out green electricity for 10,000 Maui homes - and are able to be store (and so regulate) up to 4.4 MWh of fickle wind energy, thanks to its on-site battery facility.

A  great green news story, one that surely won applause from Hawaii's residents, weighed down as they are by hefty oil-fired electricity bills (which are amongst the most costly in the US)?

But not so fast.

While many on Maui may have applauded the prospects for cleaner energy,  reduced bills and the extra jobs that the wind farm development has bought to this rural Hawaii island, it's a different noise coming from just across the water, on the island of Lanai.

There, instead, it has been a chorus of disapproval that's greeted attempts to farm the wind. Local opposition to a plan for 400 MW of 'Big Wind' on the island has stalled attempts to stitch a cross-island power network from Hawaii's diverse renewable resources.  Wind turbines, it seems, have the power to divide and inflame passions, as well as to produce emission-free electricity. And that's even when the economics appear so firmly in wind's favor, as they are in Hawaii - thanks to the need for expensive imported oil shooting utility rates sky-high.

Oahu, the most populated island and home to capital  Honolulu, has average utility rates at $0.32 per kWh; Maui has its rates at around $0.35 per kWh; while Lanai's rates are a whopping $0.44 for each kilowatt-hour of power. Compare those to the expected rates for the Auwahi Wind project, which are likely to average around $0.08-15 per kWh (the local utility company pays a two-step tariff based on the power produced). Plenty of room for lower bills, if power were to switch to wind from oil, you'd think.

But wind power has become a toxically turbulent topic in Hawaii. That's partly because of  geography. The places where most energy is consumed - the richer, urban island of Oahu and the Pacific tourist mecca of Honolulu - have little wind resource, whereas the rural poorly-populated islands of Lanai, Molokai and Maui have it by the blade-ful. The eminently sensible-seeming solution - to Honolulu at least - of building giant wind turbines on Lanai and shipping all that power back to the big city, via undersea cables - got a very different perception on the Lanai side of the channel.

Friends of Lanai, a local group set up to oppose the Big Wind project, was worried about the despoilation of  culturally significant parts of the island, not to mention the effects on endangered birdlife. There was also the fact that little of the revenue earned to power Oahu (more than $100 million per year) would filter down to those who would have to live with the turbines. They  monickered the project the 'Oahu Industrial Wind Power Plant on Lanai', and their expressed concerns resonated locally. More than 90% of Lanai-dwellers said they were opposed to Big Wind  in polls back in 2011.

That association with economic exploitation has been exacerbated by an uncomfortable social history - the long-time plantation culture on islands like Lanai. For much of its history, the local community has owed its entire livelihood to a few powerful land owners. First it was the ranchers whoheld sway, then it was the pineapple workers of Lanai, who were bonded to the Hawaiian Pineapple Company of James Dole. More recently it has been David Murdock, head of successor company Castle & Cooke, and the hotel resort economy he has run on the 98% C&C owned-island.

Kicking back against C&C

It was Castle & Cooke that proposed to build 174 of the four hundred-feet high wind turbines right across a quarter of the island - including areas of cultural significance to the local islanders. And Castle & Cooke would have been the prime beneficiaries from the shipping of most of that power off-island. Perhaps wasn't surprising that this would feel like just another phase in outsiders taking advantage of local resources. Or that the islanders would voice their dissatisfaction so loudly.

The rebellion by Lanai'ans has so far been successful. Castle and Cooke has sold the island on (to none-other than billioniare Larry Ellison), the plans for an inter-island cable have been modified; Big Wind is on hold. All of which goes to show how readily grand technical solutions can come unstuck in the face of awkward social truths.

The cautionary tale of the turbines

Wind undoubtedly has a founding role to play in the ongoing energy transformation. It is relatively cheap, and often complementary to solar power. But industrial-scale wind solutions, foisted on communities - without them having any meaningful involvement, control or benefit - is a last-century approach to a harnessing a new millennium technology. Renewables, which are inherently more distributable in nature, and which have the ability to bring power literally to the people, need to be seen as a social challenge (and potential catalyst) rather than merely a technical one.

So the tale of the turbines in these two islands offers a cautionary tale. If energy is to be made clean and green enough, fast enough, policy-makers will need to place communities at the heart of deciding on meeting their future power needs. As Hawaiian Senator, Brian Schultz, told Maui Weekly, when talking about the Auwahi Windfarm:

"We don't have to act as if the community will oppose all wind, solar or geothermal projects. These projects start with conversations. It starts with talking to elders and kuhuna in the community. It doesn't start with a power purchase agreement and contract negotiations."


  1. The deploy solar grids of both commercial and residential scale and stop thinking wind is an answer to anything....

    1. Surely wind has its place. In many northern latitude countries, when solar power is at a low from cloud & rain, wind is at a high. Wind and solar can be pretty complementary for many locales.